UN Special Rapporteur speaks about the future of human rights at MLS

Speaking to a full house in a public lecture at Melbourne Law School on Monday 7 August 2017, Professor Philip Alston predicted that human rights are not going to disappear, but they will become increasingly difficult to defend and to uphold.

Professor Philip Alston is the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and the Co-Director of Centre of Global Justice and Human Rights at New York Law School.

Over the course of a long career in the UN and human rights, Professor Alston previously served as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions (2004-10) as well as Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1991-98).

In a speech that touched on his experiences from around the world – from the Philippines to the United States to Australia – Professor Alston spoke about the “confluence of diverse developments” that has eroded the concept of human rights.

“Few targets will be off limits in the years ahead,” Professor Alston said.

“The coalitions [against human rights] that will form will be more diverse than in the past.

“They’ll be less focused on particular issues. They’ll be more willing to depart from established understandings and conventions, and they’ll be less constrained by appeals to behave responsibility or in line with their legal obligations.”

While he acknowledged the challenging times ahead, Professor Alston ultimately defended human rights as an organising concept for advocacy.

“It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-human rights era, or that we should despair and move on, or that there’s a desperate need, as one scholar wrote, that we need to find other tools apart from human rights,” he said.

The tone of Professor Alston’s speech was ultimately one of hope and action. While he admitted that “one thing that is certain is unpredictability”, he also reminded his audience that “defending human rights has never been a consensus project.”

“For me the most important question is what each of us can do,” Professor Alston said.

“I don’t think we need to sit back and wait for others to move.

“I don’t think we can or should be dependent upon our governments because governments are never at the forefront of protecting human rights.”

Professor Alston concluded by calling for intensive self-reflection, innovative thinking and creative strategising from law students, professionals and anyone whose job touches on human rights problems.

“Human rights advocates and scholars need to rethink many of their assumptions and broaden their outreach, while not giving up on the basic principles of human rights.”

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